• Cooking is a language of its own. (Getty Images)
You don't have to speak up at the dinner table to make your point.
By
Ruby Hamad

27 Feb 2018 - 9:52 AM  UPDATED 27 Feb 2018 - 9:52 AM

More than words is all I ever needed you to show, then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me, ‘cause I’d already know.”

These cornball lyrics by American metal band Extreme would be familiar to anyone who watched Video Hits in the early '90s.

Painfully earnest, yes – the video recently earned an ironic shot-for-shot remake by comedians Jimmy Fallon and Jack Black – but the lyrics challenged the very Western assumption that the best way to let someone know you love them is to tell them.

This applies to more than romantic love. As Candice Chung noted in this viral essay two years back, in her own Chinese culture, “the nuance of parental love is often better expressed through action … from the way a father tirelessly provides to the fact that one parent gives … the ‘good cuts of meat’.”

As a teenager, I resented my Arab parents for not being like ‘real’ Aussie parents. I hated that we spoke not just a different language – but one that wasn’t cool or romantic, like French and Italian. I hated my school lunches of flat Lebanese bread filled with labne or za’atar, which seemed embarrassingly poor substitutes for processed cheese slices or Vegemite, but are now staples at any self-respecting inner city cafe. And I hated how my parents didn’t teach us to speak about our feelings.

As a teenager, I resented my Arab parents for not being like ‘real’ Aussie parents. I hated that we spoke not just a different language – but one that wasn’t cool or romantic, like French and Italian.

As so often happens, time has fed my appreciation for my parents’ sacrifices; they may not have been able to say it, but they showed their love for us in many ways – we just didn’t know how to look for it back then.

My parents came to Australia with six children and little more than a few suitcases stuffed with clothes and several jars of pungent shanklish that were confiscated by a very confused customs officer.

In Lebanon, my father was a trade unionist who had travelled throughout the region organising for Arab workers, only to find his experience unrecognised in a new country where he struggled to adopt the language and interpret the culture. So, like my mother, he wound up working at a plastics factory in St Peters until injuries resulting in life-long pain and complications put even that job out of their reach.

My mum's grapevine is our family's lifeline
Ruby Hamad savours the ritual of rolling the season's first vine leaves in her mother's kitchen, but wonders if the tradition will survive.

The six children expanded to seven and life was tough. My parents made do by buying fruit, veggies and other staples such as dried legumes in bulk, meaning we almost always ate at home.

The vision of strangers dining in the various restaurants dotting Newtown’s King Street as I made my way home on the 422 is as firmly etched in my memory as the envy I felt – our worlds were separated not merely by glass windows but by history, culture, and wealth.

I hated my school lunches of flat Lebanese bread filled with labneh or za’atar, which seemed embarrassingly poor substitutes for processed cheese slices or Vegemite, but are now staples at any self-respecting inner city cafe

Two or three times a year, my father would break the budget and take us to splurge on the fast food ‘restaurant’ of our choice. On those special days, we ate whatever we wanted and my father pretended this extravagance wasn’t emptying his wallet. Though I have long outgrown fast food, today his small sacrifice means more than words can express.

The importance of food in Arab culture is well known and Arab mothers are famous for overfeeding their families and guests. This, too, is a way of showing what may be difficult to say. I didn’t know it then, but my mother’s distant demeanour was a result of losing her own father at the age of 13; as the eldest child, it was her duty to leave school to help her mother raise her younger siblings and tend to their small farm in the Syrian countryside.

The importance of food in Arab culture is well known and Arab mothers are famous for overfeeding their families and guests. This, too, is a way of showing what may be difficult to say.

Sure, she was strict and sometimes harsh on us while we were growing up, but she also made sure our bellies never knew how hard we really had it. Without a car in the early years, she saved on bus fare by walking home for more than an hour – saddled with half a dozen or more plastic bags full of groceries.

These days, as old age wears down her body, she still rises at the crack of dawn to cook us something special. This can be for occasions like Eid or New Year’s Eve or it could be for the small pleasure of calling one of her many grandchildren to pick up her food to share with their family.

We lost our father many years ago and the seven siblings have again shrunk to six. We’ve been through more than a family should and we still don’t talk much about our feelings, but when I recently returned to Sydney from Los Angeles, I didn’t have to ask for the hot meal of rolled vine leaves stuffed with rice, herbs and pine nuts that was waiting for me.

Corny, okay. But then corn is one of the world’s great staple foods.

How to make an Arab feast
Creamy hummus

You want hummus to be creamy and buttery – adding the iced water is part of the secret. I use a lot of tahini in this recipe, but I want it to be super creamy. 

Jewel box labne balls

What’s a party without a cheeseboard? Go for a healthier option and make your own labneh, an addictively creamy yoghurt cheese, eaten all over the Middle East. Labneh is simply strained yoghurt. 

The whole baba

Seriously impressive, this eggplant side really is the whole baba. 

Lebanese za'atar pizza (man’oushe bi za'atar)

Taking its name from the Arabic word for ‘engraved’ because of the indentations on the dough, this pizza is a breakfast favourite.

Cheat’s shanklish

Shanklish is a Middle Eastern cheese with a similar texture to feta. Made from yoghurt whey, the cheese is salted, shaped into balls and aged. Once matured, it is coated in dried thyme, and sometimes chilli. This quick-and-easy version makes a good substitute.

Broad bean puree with shanklish